NFL Stars on the Verge of Cementing Hall of Fame Status This Season
In nine weeks, the NFL will officially return from the dark of the offseason with a ceremony to enshrine professional football's newest Hall of Famers: Bobby Beathard, Robert Brazile, Brian Dawkins, Jerry Kramer, Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Brian Urlacher. And soon after that, about 2,000 active NFL players will return to the grind in hopes of one day being honored in the same spot.
After all, Hall of Fame legacies are sculpted between early September and the first week of February. And while several special active players have already unofficially sewn up their spots in Canton, and many others are just trying to remain employed, several particular NFL stars will have a chance to tighten their grips on gold jackets this fall.
Which players are on the verge of cementing Hall of Fame status this season?
Considering that only a handful of players in modern NFL history (Gale Sayers, Kenny Easley, Kellen Winslow, Dwight Stephenson and Earl Campbell) have made the Hall of Fame with fewer than 116 career games played, it's too early to look at active players who have taken part in fewer than 100 NFL games entering the 2018 season. But with everybody else fair game, let's break it down.
Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference's Player Season Finder.
New England Patriots QB Tom Brady: With five Super Bowls, three MVPs and 13 Pro Bowl nods, Brady is the most decorated quarterback in NFL history.
New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees: The 11-time Pro Bowler and two-time Offensive Player of the Year has the highest completion percentage in NFL history (66.9). He's also the sixth-highest-rated passer in league history and he trails all-time passing yardage leader Peyton Manning by just 1,495 yards.
Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger: The six-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion isn't a first-ballot guy just yet, but it helps that he's won throughout his career. Among quarterbacks with at least 100 career starts, only Brady, Manning, Joe Montana, Russell Wilson and Jim McMahon have higher career winning percentages.
Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers: The two-time MVP is the highest-rated qualified passer in NFL history by a wide margin.
Free-agent RB Adrian Peterson: The 2012 MVP was one of the three or four most dominant players in the game for half a decade. He's one of just five players with a career yards-per-game average above 90.0, and the other four are all in Canton.
Miami Dolphins RB Frank Gore: The five-time Pro Bowler is one of eight players in NFL history with 13,000-plus rushing yards. The other seven are all in Canton. It would be pretty tough to deny him with that in mind. Gore has been one of the most durable of this era.
Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald: Only one wide receiver in NFL history (Jerry Rice) has caught more passes than Fitzgerald, who also ranks in the top three in receiving yards and is one of just 10 players with 100-plus touchdown catches.
Free-agent TE Antonio Gates: No tight end in NFL history has scored as many touchdowns as Gates (114). Shannon Sharpe is in the Hall of Fame despite inferior numbers across the board. Gates might be penalized for a lack of rings, but there's no doubt he'll get in.
Carolina Panthers DE Julius Peppers: He's a nine-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro with a Defensive Player of the Year award on his resume. He also ranks fourth all time with 154.5 sacks. All six players with more than 140 are in the Hall of Fame.
Houston Texans DE J.J. Watt: He and Lawrence Taylor are the only three-time Defensive Player of the Year award recipients, and Watt is the only player in NFL history with multiple 20-sack seasons. He's only 29, but he's already done enough. Thus, he's the lone exception to that 100-game rule.
Indianapolis Colts K Adam Vinatieri: Arguably the most clutch kicker in NFL history, Vinatieri might pass Hall of Famer Morten Andersen to become the league's all-time points leader in 2018. Anderson is in the Hall of Fame despite never winning a Super Bowl. Vinatieri has won four.
As for those on the brink...
New York Giants QB Eli Manning
It's been a hell of an era for quarterbacks. That dynamic alone could make it hard for New York Giants signal-caller Eli Manning, who has a lower career passer rating than the likes of Jay Cutler, Sam Bradford, Marc Bulger and Joe Flacco. Manning's individual numbers are far from pretty, and he's only been a Pro Bowler four times in 14 NFL seasons.
That said, only Manning, Brady, Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr have won multiple Super Bowl MVP awards. Those other four quarterbacks were or will be first-ballot Hall of Famers.
That alone could arguably be enough for Manning, but it's not that simple. Brady has won five Super Bowls and has been a regular-season MVP three times, Montana won four titles and two regular-season MVP awards, Bradshaw won four Lombardi trophies and was the 1978 MVP, and Starr won five championships and was the 1966 MVP.
Manning has never been a regular-season MVP, a first-team All-Pro or even a second-team All-Pro. If he can finally accomplish any of those feats in a suddenly talented offense as a 37-year-old in 2018, he'll become a Hall of Fame lock. But at this point, a third deep playoff run of his peak-and-valley-filled career might be enough.
Los Angeles Chargers QB Philip Rivers
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who was traded for Manning the day both were drafted in 2004, faces the opposite problem. Rivers is the eighth-highest-rated passer in NFL history, and he ranks in the top 10 all time in terms of passing yards, passing touchdowns and completion percentage. He's been to seven Pro Bowls compared to Manning's four.
But Rivers has never been able to take the Chargers to a Super Bowl.
If the 36-year-old earns another Pro Bowl nod in 2018, he'll become the 13th quarterback in NFL history to receive that honor eight or more times. The other 12 quarterbacks to do so are either in the Hall of Fame or (in the case of Peyton Manning, Brady and Brees) will be soon.
But because Rivers has never been an MVP, an Offensive Player of the Year or even an All-Pro, he'll probably have to either earn one of those accolades or finally get the Bolts to their first Super Bowl this century.
If Rivers wins that franchise its first-ever Lombardi trophy, he's probably in. And the talented Chargers certainly have an outside shot at that in 2018.
Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan
Nine players have won the Associated Press NFL MVP award more than once. All nine are either in the Hall of Fame (Brett Favre, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, Kurt Warner, Steve Young and Montana) or will be soon (Manning, Brady, Rodgers).
That puts Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in an interesting spot entering the second decade of his NFL career. At the 10-year mark, Ryan has yet to win a Super Bowl and has been a Pro Bowler just three times. But he did have one incredible year, the unforgettable 2016 campaign in which Ryan was a Pro Bowler, a first-team All-Pro, an MVP and nearly a Super Bowl champion.
Had the Falcons not choked in Super Bowl LI, Ryan would be at least find himself a tad closer to the Hall of Fame track. Another deep playoff run along with a Pro Bowl nod would potentially allow him to leapfrog Rivers and Manning on the Canton quarterback hierarchy. But in order to truly cement a Hall of Fame case in his age-33 season, the 2008 third overall pick would probably have to put together another 2016-level year, along with a happier finish.
If Ryan can earn a second MVP award and a second Super Bowl appearance in a three-year span, it'll hard to keep him out of Canton when he retires. And yes, that's a tall task. But consider how much talent there is around him there in Atlanta, as well as the fact he seems to excel in even-numbered years (his four Pro Bowl campaigns took place in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016).
Buffalo Bills RB LeSean McCoy
Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy is one of the longer shots in this analysis, simply because he would probably need a 2,000-yard MVP season culminating in a Super Bowl victory in order to become a Hall of Fame shoo-in.
And while that might not be expected of a player on the back nine of his career, it's not completely out of the question. Shady has compiled 3,209 scrimmage yards and scored 22 touchdowns the last two seasons. He hasn't slowed down much if at all as he approaches his 30th birthday.
McCoy ranks 23rd all-time among running backs with 13,470 scrimmage yards, which is just ahead of Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson and just behind Adrian Peterson. Another big season would give him strong enough cumulative numbers to fit in with the majority of the backs in Canton, and a championship run would also help to significantly boost his resume.
But McCoy might not need to put together a career year in order to move into the Hall of Fame circle. If he can pick up another 1,100 yards from scrimmage, he'll become just the 11th back in NFL history to hit that mark nine or more times. Eight of the other 10 are in the Hall of Fame, and the two non-Hall of Famers are strong candidates in Gore and Ricky Watters. And a seventh Pro Bowl nod would make him the 11th back to earn that honor more than six times. The other 10 are all either in Canton or go by the name Adrian Peterson.
So while it won't be easy for McCoy to stay on top of his game at his age, it's entirely possible he's only a year away from meeting most of our Hall of Fame standards.
New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski
An argument could be made that New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is already a lock to make the Hall of Fame. After all, Gronk is one of just four tight ends with four or more first-team All-Pro nods, joining Hall of Famers Dave Casper and Shannon Sharpe as well as future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez.
Throw in that Gronk is also a two-time Super Bowl winner and a four-time AFC champion, and that he's been one of the game's biggest matchup nightmares for the better part of a decade, and you've got Hall of Fame credentials when it comes to areas outside of individual accolades.
But the 29-year-old has missed large chunks of three of his eight seasons due to injuries. As a result, 22 tight ends have more catches than him.
If Gronkowski's career ended today, he'd probably have a strong shot at the Hall of Fame. But one more Gronk-like season in New England would eliminate any doubts.
Philadelphia Eagles OT Jason Peters
This one's simple. Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Jason Peters has been elected to nine Pro Bowls. Thirteen offensive linemen have made 10, and when Joe Thomas heads to Canton in five years, all 13 will be Hall of Famers.
In fact, only seven players in league history have made double-digit Pro Bowls and aren't in the Hall of Fame. Their names are Tony Gonzalez, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Larry Fitzgerald, Jason Witten and Joe Thomas, and all will be be wearing gold jackets almost as soon as they're eligible.
So one more Pro Bowl season should do the trick for Peters, even though he's been a first-team All-Pro just twice in 14 years.
It's possible nine Pro Bowls, two All-Pro nods and that shiny new Super Bowl ring will be enough, but the 36-year-old can settle this case with a bounce-back season in 2018.
Los Angeles Rams DT Ndamukong Suh
Nine Super Bowl era defensive tackles have been first-team All-Pros on four or more occasions. Eight of those nine are Hall of Famers, and the other one—Kevin Williams—will likely be elected soon after becoming eligible in 2020. That probably means that a fourth All-Pro season from Ndamukong Suh in his first year with the Los Angeles Rams will secure Suh's campaign for Canton.
Suh's case suffers a bit because he hasn't experienced much team success, but that could also change as he joins a Rams squad that is considered to be a Super Bowl contender. And it also helps that he's been a second-team All-Pro twice and was the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2010.
The 31-year-old was widely considered the top defensive tackle in football for much of the current decade, but if he didn't play another down, he certainly wouldn't be guaranteed a gold jacket. That's because the sample is lacking.
In terms of Pro Football Reference's approximate value metric—which is "an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year"—26 eligible non-Pro Bowlers rank ahead of Suh.
Still, one more monster season in a new setting would probably put Suh over the top.
Baltimore Ravens LB Terrell Suggs
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs can probably clinch a spot in Canton with a second Defensive Player of the Year award, since all six players who have won that award multiple times are in the Hall of Fame. That's a remote possibility at best for the 35-year-old, but one more strong season should at least increase his odds of making the cut.
Another double-digit-sack campaign (he had 11 last year) would move Suggs ahead of Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor, Rickey Jackson and Derrick Thomas on the all-time sack list. A dozen would move him into the top 10.
And that kind of year would also likely land him in the Pro Bowl for the eighth time. All 16 front-seven defenders who have been to exactly eight Pro Bowls are in the Hall of Fame, whereas only eight of the 17 with seven Pro Bowl nods own gold jackets.
Suggs might already have been separated from that group thanks to his Super Bowl ring and his DPOY award, but he might need to compensate for the fact he's been a first-team All-Pro just once. Zach Thomas received that honor five times but hasn't received any love from Hall of Fame voters.
Denver Broncos LB Von Miller
Because it's tough for a pass-rusher to get into the Hall of Fame with fewer than 120 sacks and Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller has just 83.5 in his career, conventional wisdom might be that Miller needs a few more strong seasons to solidify his Hall of Fame chances.
But the reality is one massive 2018 campaign could also get the job done.
Miller is one Pro Bowl nod back of Suggs with six, but he's been a first-team All-Pro three times, he's a Super Bowl champion, and he was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011.
Of the 63 Hall of Fame-eligible front-seven defensive players with four-plus first-team All-Pro nods in NFL history, 52 are in Canton. So if Miller does that or makes a run at MVP or Defensive Player of the Year in his age-29 season, he'll probably have a strong enough resume to make the cut regardless of what he does on the other side of 30.
And we know Miller has it in him. He fell just one vote shy of winning DPOY in 2016.
Seattle Seahawks S Earl Thomas
With a strong age-29 season in 2018, Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas can become a seven-time Pro Bowler and a four-time first-team All-Pro. Among the 12 Hall of Fame-eligible safeties who made at least seven Pro Bowls, nine have been inducted in Canton. And among the 10 Hall of Fame-eligible safeties who were four-time first-team All-Pros, six have been inducted in Canton.
Considering that Thomas has also played a major role on a Super Bowl winner, one strong 2018 season might put him over the top.
He's already made a bigger impact in Seattle than gold-jacket-wearing 1980s great Kenny Easley, and a fourth five-interception season would allow him to hit the 30-career-pick mark. That could be the key, because every modern-day defensive back in the Hall of Fame recorded at least 30 interceptions.
Thomas might not be there yet with 25 picks and three All-Pro seasons, but a career year in his prime would be the icing on his Hall of Fame cake.
Not Yet (if Ever)
Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton: Newton and Ryan are the only active players with a realistic shot at joining the multiple-MVP club in 2018, and every other player with more than one MVP award has either made it to Canton or will soon (Peyton Manning, Brady, Brees). But not even an MVP season would be enough for Newton right now, because his rate-base stats (sub-60 completion percentage, 85.3 passer rating) are abysmal. It's probably not realistic to think Newton can cement a Hall of Fame spot before turning 30.
Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antonio Brown: A fifth consecutive All-Pro season would move Brown to the brink, but 41 players have caught more passes than him, 47 have picked up more receiving yards, and 86 have caught more touchdown passes. Even as a four-time first-team All-Pro, that probably means he'll need at least two more highly productive campaigns in order to cement his place in Canton.
Seattle Seahawks WR Brandon Marshall: A strong late-career season in Seattle could give the 34-year-old Hall of Fame-level cumulative stats, as he already ranks 16th all time with 959 catches and 23rd with 82 touchdown receptions. The problem is he's been a first-team All-Pro just once, and it appears he's run out of gas.
San Francisco 49ers CB Richard Sherman: Every cornerback in the Hall of Fame had at least 40 interceptions. Sherman has 32. Every cornerback in the Hall of Fame played at least 11 years. Sherman has played just seven. Those standards might drop in the near future because this era features far fewer interceptions and shorter careers than in the past, but Sherman would still need a monster year to lock it up in 2018. He isn't the player he once was and is coming back from injury, so he'll likely only get in if he sticks around and performs solidly for a few more seasons.
Arizona Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson: If Peterson earns an eighth career Pro Bowl nod, he won't have to do much more to land in Canton. But Lemar Parrish made eight Pro Bowls and intercepted 47 passes and isn't in. Peterson has just 21 career interceptions, one career touchdown and no team success on his resume. He'd probably have to win MVP to lock up a Canton spot in 2018, and that's something a corner has never done.
Others who will enter the conversation as soon as they've put in enough time: Russell Wilson, Eric Berry, Luke Kuechly, Julio Jones, Bobby Wagner, NaVorro Bowman, Le'Veon Bell, Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald